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Too much too young?

March 24th, 2005

Dr Petra

Concern about teenage sexual behaviour always fills column inches. Either in stories to scare parents, blame teens, or perhaps even offer some vague titillation about teenage sexual activity.

Today’s no exception. Several papers picked up on the ‘survey’ of 2000 teenage girls who read Bliss magazine, with headlines like:

A quarter of girls aged 14 claim to have sex with several partners (Telegraph)
One fifth of teenage girls are sexually active by 14 (Independent)
Girls in gloom crisis (Manchester Evening News)
Thoroughly troubled modern miss (Scotsman)
Teenage girls sex survey shock (News and Star)
Drunk teens in sex trouble
(Calcutta Telegraph)

If Bliss wanted to get coverage, they hit the jackpot. If they wanted to help teenage girls, they’ve missed the mark.

The Bliss ‘survey’ results indicated that almost a quarter of the girls who responded (average age 14) admitted to having sex with an average of three partners. 65% hadn’t used condoms, and 45% had had a one-night stand. 60% of this group were drunk when they had sex, and 29% said they didn’t enjoy it.

Predictably this story led to pleas for more sex education from groups such as Brook and the Family Planning Clinic, alongside less enlightened groups claiming sex education and availability of contraception caused these problems.

But let’s take a step back and look at that data again.

The survey’s for Bliss magazine. Therefore the aim of this study (and any other like it) is first and foremost to get the name of the magazine into the headlines. In their efforts to get this coverage, they report erroneous data that leads to moral panic, which may well reduce the likelihood of teenagers getting help.

Why is magazine-derived survey data inadequate? Well, in this case, the survey sample is based on those Bliss readers who chose to respond to it. They’ll be a subset of the Bliss readership, motivated teens with something to say. They’ll be able to guess what sort of answers the magazine will want to hear, and be happy to try and provide those answers. Because the design of the survey will have been created by journalists rather than qualified sex researchers, questions will be leading – meaning sensational answers are guaranteed – but probably alienating a large number of potential respondents along the way. So those who’re not having underage sex, getting drunk or avoiding condom use could feel the survey doesn’t apply to them and not bother responding – amplifying those in the ‘risk’ group.

But the main problem with this research is that it’s not based on any analysis. Whilst ¼ of the Bliss respondents stated they’d had underage sex (which admittedly is a problem), ¾ have not have unprotected sex underage. And probably statistical analysis would show that the significant proportion of teenage girls are not taking risks, getting drunk, or having sex too early. Unfortunately, this study, as with all media exercises like it, never bother with analysis – they simply cherry pick percentages that they know will get them into the papers.

The survey, by its very nature, hasn’t focused on boys, meaning that boys stories on sex and education, and their role within the underage experience of teenage girls is ignored. This means teenage girls continue to be blamed for underage sexual activities, pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, whilst boys’ needs are left unanswered. Lesbian teenagers were clearly not part of the Bliss ‘survey’ agenda, so their sexual health needs are completely absent.

If we’re going to get concerned about teenage sexual behaviour – and we should, because any teenager being abused, exploited or feeling sexually uncertain is a problem – then we should at least base our worries on reliable, robust, and representative information.

With respect, the Bliss ‘survey’ is not that.

If magazines like Bliss want to get it right, they should focus away from doing their own ‘surveys’, and consult with sex researchers who could provide them with evidence to inform stories about sex that might help readers and their parents. Because the existing research data tells a different story to this Bliss tale. Whilst there are teenagers who’re abused, who take risks, who lack sex education and who do have underage sex, there are those who don’t have sex until marriage, some who abstain until they’re over the age of consent, and some whose sexual behaviour doesn’t extend to intercourse.

The more robust research such as the UK’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles suggests the average number of under-14 year-old girls having sex is 13%, not the shocking 25% as claimed by Bliss. Put more simply, reliable survey data suggests we should be aware of the just over one in ten girls are having sex aged under 14, not a quarter of all teenage girls in the UK, as claimed by the Bliss ‘survey’ – and incorrectly reported in the newspapers.

Research shows sex education for teenagers’ results in them putting off having sex until they’re older, and when they do have sex, they enjoy it more. Those who do have sex underage often regret it, and may be at risk from abuse or coercion. Certainly we need to be aware of this, increasing sex education and access to services providing contraception and advice – not to encourage our teens into having sex, but to protect them from abuse, exploitation, or simply not enjoying sex when it happens to them.

Anyone with knowledge in this area must know the media, particularly more conservative newspapers, are not going to use stories like this to raise awareness about teenage sexual health. Instead they’re going to spin it to continue with their theme of blaming teenage girls.

So you have to ask, what’s more important to teenage magazines? Caring for their readers, or promoting their copy? And what’s more important to newspapers – accurate reporting of stories, or flogging copies by making a magazine’s promotional exercise into a UK panic about errant teenage girls?

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